What “Joker” Tells Us About Comedy Today

In The King of Comedy, Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro), a bumbling amateur comic living in his mother’s basement, stalks Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), a talk show host, and, with the aid of a friend (Sandra Bernhard), eventually holds him hostage in an effort to do a late-night set. Shockingly, the execs put him on and he somehow with zero experience gets a ton of laughs. He is whisked off to jail by the authorities, but still gets a book deal and becomes famous…probably moreso than he could have by any other means. The film effectively satirizes our mass media and certain pernicious cultural trends (such as rewarding criminal behavior), highlighting the shallowness of the public and the fact that the real joke is a society without a moral center.

We now have an update to The King of Comedy, a new satire on the media and various cultural trends, particularly the rot of our social structures, and that film is Joker. The new film doesn’t just reference The King Of Comedy, there are overlapping plot points that seem to be in conversation with each other (the director, Todd Phillips, admits Joker is heavily influenced by The King of Comedy). Both films, for example, feature a mentally-disturbed comedian living with his mother who is prone to delusions of grandeur. More to the point, by having the talk show host, Murray Franklin, played by Robert De Niro (who formerly played the delusional comic), Phillips seems to be suggesting that the fraud, the perpetrator now runs the show, or has become the face of corruption itself. The film also seems to be implying society is in a greater state of disrepair than in The King of Comedy, a fact backed up by a plot that endlessly reinforces the dystopia that is Gotham City (repetitive violence, riots etc.).

We first meet Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a disgruntled, heavily-medicated clown by day and a wannabe, amateur comic by night at a therapist’s office where he laughs with eerie inappropriateness. While Phillips is known for lighter fare like The Hangover and Road Trip, the tone here is quite somber: Arthur is unhinged, maladjusted, and harassed incessantly…often for his inappropriate laughter. A social pariah, Arthur just wants to be treated as a human being but feels incessantly humiliated, attacked, and/or ignored. As much as Arthur longs for human connection such as some sort of relationship with his female neighbor (Zazie Beets), there are other times when he retreats further into himself — such as when he removes the shelves from the refrigerator, crawls inside it, and shuts the door.

As the film progresses, Arthur is pushed further to the fringe: he loses his clown job, finds out he was adopted, and performs a really lousy standup comedy set. Exacerbating matters, due to a cut in social services in Gotham City he can no longer see his therapist or obtain his seven psychiatric meds (he and his mother are quite poor).

Eventually, given his lack of a means of coping with his frustrations, Arthur spirals downward, and, when attacked, murders three Thomas Wayne businessmen. This is followed by the murder of his mother, Penny, and a former co-worker.

As Joker progresses, Arthur performs standup in a club. Based on that segment, Murray invites Arthur to be a guest on the show. Once on air, it is clear Murray intends to humiliate him, to use his bizarre nature as a kind of running gag, thereby magnifying his feelings of rejection. Arthur tries to be funny, and, as expected fails, to the condescending laughter of the crowd.

At loss for what to do, he points out the hypocrisy of the societal paradigm in Gotham City and admits to murdering the three businessmen. This leads to some awkward banter alluding to broken social structures and income inequality before Arthur kills the talk show host live on TV. He is arrested, and, after the cop car crashes while on the way to jail, a riot ensues. Arthur rises on the hood of the car and is lauded by his followers in clown masks as a hero. He even uses his own blood to help generate a strange, depraved smile.

What to make of all this? For one, the implication seems to be that humor as commonly practiced in Gotham City has become divorced from the real problems faced by the populace. Comedy has become overly sanitized, has been relegated to a bubble (we see standup sets from comics about innocuous subjects that have no lasting effect on the populace). They are like the theatrical play Thomas Wayne attends, safe, placating entertainments that never address societal woes. Humor needs to take on a new dimension in order to influence the populace. Arthur manages this new kind of humor — a humor that isn’t funny — a humor that goes deeper — hence the riots he inspires. Put another way, the joke structure here is as follows: Arthur’s existence is the setup, society is the punchline.

A second critical point is that there is something liberating about all this violence. This is a dangerous idea. When the film came out, there were fears of copycat crimes by incels…and not without cause…since the film basically glorifies violence by a social outcast. Yes, like it or not, Joker seems to suggest that Arthur’s murders are empowering, which is why after a bit of ghastly criminal behavior we see him dancing joyously on the stairs. Is such a notion irresponsible? Not really. For the film implies that Gotham City is so corrupt, so maligned and crooked, that violence is needed to retain any sense of personal agency. Or, put differently, when the society itself is psycho, the psychotic response may be the only sane one left.

Why do all this? Why have us identify with a psychopath in a way that perhaps has not been attempted since Kubrick explored the psychopathic world of Alex and his droogs in A Clockwork Orange? My guess is Phillips seems to be implying that is only by doing do that we can fully grasp the disrepair of our own society, its essential illness, and grasp too why a character as flawed as Arthur Fleck could inspire tremendous social upheaval. Additionally, the film seems to be a plea for change, for sanity, for radical destruction in an effort to create new forms of liberty (in the Dionysian sense as Nietzsche discussed in The Birth Of Tragedy.) Suggesting that we rise up like the rioters in Gotham City is a tall order for a comic book movie, and the fact that it is so unlikely to occur, so seemingly preposterous, is sort of the point, no?

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Matt Nagin

Matt Nagin is a writer, comedian, actor, and educator. His latest book, “Do Not Feed The Clown,” is available on Amazon. More at mattnagin.com.